Matt Curtis asks whether our assumptions of unstoppable growth in London’s craft beer culture may have been misplaced
Saturday 20 November 2021
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I was lucky enough to call myself a Londoner for 15 years, and in that time I watched as its beer culture evolved, shifting into something barely recognisable as the same scene as when I arrived.
Or at least, that’s what I convinced myself. For a long time, I craved a taste of America in the British capital: the taprooms, the intensely hoppy IPAs and big stouts, the merchandise that let everyone who cares know I’ve been to the latest brewery opening. And over the past decade, that’s exactly what happened. Inspired by US imports and trips across the pond, breweries began using increasingly large amounts of aromatic hops in their beers, and gave you the ability to drink it directly from the source. From around 2009 onwards, the number of breweries within the capital increased from just 10, to over 140. Over the past decade beer in London has changed, forever.
The reality is, however, that London has always been and will always be a beer town. It is not defined by the most recent decade alone, or even the one previous. The number of pubs and breweries here has always ebbed and flowed, but the constant is the people: those with a great thirst, and one that can only be sated with a good pint.
These days, it seems crazy to think that when I moved into my first flat in Archway, North London in late 2005 there was no Kernel, no Beavertown, and no Bermondsey Beer Mile. In fact if you wanted to find beer that was interesting and a little bit different to the norm, you had to work hard to find it. Perhaps this would be at one of the smaller CAMRA beer festivals like London Drinker in Camden, or the Pig’s Ear Beer Festival in Hackney. Or you might’ve found it in pubs like the Bree Louise in Euston (now sadly closed), Tapping the Admiral in Kentish Town, or The Rake in Borough Market.
But in all honesty as a wet behind the ears London citizen, I never found these spaces particularly welcoming, at least not until I got a little wiser. I knew I liked beer, but never felt as though I knew enough about it to properly explore what was on offer. This remained the case until the emergence of breweries like The Kernel, and the formation of the Bermondsey Beer Mile (a stretch of south London home to, at last count, 12 breweries.) Here was a refreshingly new space in which to indulge one’s curiosity.
“When I started brewing at Redemption many years ago, there were less than 15 or so breweries and everyone knew everyone,” Andy Smith tells me. He founded Partizan brewing in Bermondsey in 2012. “There was a good one or two year period where pretty much everyone brewing in London would be outside Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell on a Friday night.”
“I suppose like Bermondsey more people came, the scene became much more full and dynamic and it became harder to know everyone,” he adds.
What makes the past decade of London beer so interesting is how much it changed in that time. Ambitious Breweries like Fourpure, Beavertown and Camden Town arrived with big ideas, and subsequently found themselves acquired by some of the largest beer companies in the world. (A cynic might say that was the plan all along.) Multiple breweries abandoned English beer traditions in favour of inspiration from Belgium, Germany and, predominantly, the US. For some breweries this abandonment included perhaps England’s greatest brewing tradition: cask ale. There was a desire to do something completely different; to gloss up beer, and open it to an entirely new generation of beer drinkers. And it succeeded.
“Bermondsey has changed loads and not at all. We’re in what I term ‘old Bermondsey’: a last bastion of cockneydom, nestled in the shadow of Millwall’s the Den,” Smith says. “There is also ‘new Bermondsey’ shadowed by the Shard and centered around some truly brilliant restaurants and bars. An area of rapid and material change but maintaining a strong independent and local ethos with it.”
Smith’s thoughts echo my own feelings on how London’s beer scene has changed. While you can count the number of breweries to sell out on your fingers, you’d need an army of hands to add up the small, local breweries that serve their local communities; the people, the independent pubs, bars, bottle shops, restaurants and cafes. But also breweries that produce beer with a flavour and character tied deeply into a sense of place. I think Partizan’s beers, much like those from their neighbours The Kernel, display that in abundance.
There’s a big but, though. When I decided to leave London, mid-lockdown while the chaos of the pandemic was at its most intense, I tried to reflect on where the scene would head next. Something else that defined the past decade of beer in London for me was how certain I was of its direction. Now I am filled with questions, and doubt about what will happen to it in the coming months and years. Will more long-term Londoners like myself also abandon the city? Will customers return to pre-pandemic levels or are they happier avoiding busy spaces? At the moment, it feels too soon to really tell.
“Now the furlough has ended, the loans need repaying and duty reform is likely to take place, it’s going to be a tough winter and continued support from local communities is still going to be key,” Hackney Brewery co-founder Jon Swain tells me.
Will customers return to pre-pandemic levels or are they happier avoiding busy spaces?
He started the brewery in 2011 under a railway arch in the London borough the brewery takes its name from. In late 2021 the brewery finished a huge move and expansion to Walthamstow, when it opened its High Hill taproom in October. It’s now part of an expanding group of breweries in the area, including Wild Card, Signature Brew and Exale, which have created a string of exciting new brewery taprooms that gives even the Bermondsey Beer Mile a decent run for its money.
“We’ve been lucky to get a space where we can grow; others aren’t as lucky,” Swain says, also noting that they moved to the closest venue to their original Hackney home with enough space for their ambitions. “I expect we’ll see more smaller brew pubs pop up as those models seem to work. Change is a constant, progression is key.”
Another brewery that recently joined the Walthamstow roster is Beerblefish. Founded by Bethany Burrow and James Atherton in 2015, the operation started out by using the now defunct UBrew in Bermondsey—a community brewing space where breweries could “rent” space and equipment. The following year they were able to commission their own space in Edmonton, eventually adding brewer Michaela Charles (who formerly produced beers on the in house brewery at the since-closed Pitt Cue restaurant) to their ranks. In May 2021 they moved to Walthamstow, tripling the space available to them and opening a taproom.
“[Since opening the taproom] we now have a deeper understanding of how customers interact with our beers, and how we can satisfy demand,” Burrow tells me. “We’re proud to be the only cask-led brewery in the area (at least at the moment) and we think that gives visitors to Blackhorse Lane something different from the other breweries in the area.”
When I ask both Swain and Burrow about what they feel might have the biggest influence on the future of the London beer scene, the pandemic—and the resulting fallout—is still the subject that looms largest. Burrow makes an interesting point in that many local authorities are keen to convert industrial use land into space for commercial and residential properties. However, she says that Waltham Forest council have worked to preserve these industrial units, which is a huge factor in so many breweries having relocated or opened up there of late.
While some folks will move out of the capital, there will be others replacing them
Having not moved out of London all too long ago myself, I was interested to see if there was any worry over a “mass exit” of sorts, with others looking to escape the capital. “This is something we’re definitely keeping an eye on, but our gut feeling is that the market will be self-balancing and while some folks will move out of the capital, there will be others replacing them,” Burrow says, remaining upbeat. “If there is a bit of an exodus, it may in the long term reduce pressure on industrial to residential conversions, meaning rents for breweries are kept down, which can only be good for the long-term survival of the craft beer scene.”
“We’ve certainly noticed a lot of loyalty from our communities since the lockdown,” Swain tells me. “They clubbed together to help us through, and with our pay it forward campaign for the taproom [it] was truly overwhelming to have such support. It certainly fills us with confidence that we are going in the right direction.”
One person who understands the beer scene in London better than anyone else is a friend of mine called Jezza (he requested we didn’t print his full name). He’s been running the website beerguideldn.com since 2013, and through that he’s efficiently charted brewery openings and closings, as well as covering as many bar and taproom launches as he possibly can. In my time writing about beer in London, his has always been the resource I turn to first.
He tells me that covering the scene in this level of detail for so long has been incredibly challenging: “Hardly a week goes by without news of yet another new place opening.” There’s been 33 new additions to the guide alone since lockdown began to ease in April 2021, and a new brewery or pub only gets added if he’s managed to visit in person, and it’s met the rigorous standards of the guide.
“It’s only a little over ten years since we celebrated when the number of London breweries hit 20,” Jezza tells me. “Spending Saturday afternoons on remote industrial estates drinking fine beer in taprooms is an activity which wasn’t possible in London before 2010. Now it’s something I do on a very regular basis, along with thousands of other thirsty punters.”
He is, however, blunt when it comes to the challenges facing breweries in this challenging new era. He points out how many pubs are using less lines to pour beer, offering less sales channels for them to sell through. This is especially true with pubs who serve cask beer. Some, he says, have even stopped serving cask altogether, as presently they can’t sell it fast enough to make it worthwhile. The same circumstance means that pubs will stick to what they know, making it increasingly difficult for new breweries to get a foot in the door.
His criticism, however, doesn’t end there.
“There are a number of really excellent breweries in London, but in my view there are too many who churn out beer which is either pretty ordinary or simply not great,” Jezza says. “While there have been relatively few London breweries going under as a result of the pandemic, I think some will struggle to get through the next 12 months for these reasons.”
I admit, I am nervous about the future and what it might hold for beer in London. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the distance I have put between myself and it. But after speaking to some of those within the city I feel more at ease. Despite inevitable hardship, hatches are not being battened down. Instead, breweries continue to open, expand, launch taprooms, and brew exceptional beers. The boom of the last decade may now be over, but perhaps the slowing down of change will give us the proper chance to take stock of what has been made, and how it might look in another ten years’ time.
“It’s difficult to make ends meet [in London], especially at the start,” Beerblefish’s Bethany Burrow tells me. “But we think that’s outweighed by the opportunity to sell into one of the most varied, diverse and vibrant markets in the UK, if not the world.”
Cover photo: Samuel Regan Asante
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